How to Get the Most from Your Social Network

Apr 29, 2010

Social networks have grown to the point where they now challenge traditional ways of communicating, marketing, and recruiting. One of the measures we often use to determine the success of our networking is to count the number of people in it. But this is not really a valuable measure: I have over 10 million first, second, and third-degree connections in LinkedIn and I get almost no value from that network, per se. I get little value because many of my contacts are active recruiters. As I am neither an active recruiter nor a candidate, not much interaction happens. And this illustrates one of the several criteria needed to make a network really valuable.

Valuable, robust networks need to meet at least four criteria: (1) they need to be focused and made up of people with similar interests and motivations who are seeking the same thing; (2) they need an instigator, a moderator, perhaps even a rebel, who rouses passions and gets people engaged; (3) they need a large enough number of people so that someone is always “there” to respond, comment, and keep the ball rolling; and (4) they need to save time and energy in some way.

They Need to Be Focused and Have Similar Members

Networks are collections, but they are collections of people rather than books or stamps. Successful collectors of anything do not just collect at random. The good ones have a system, a focus, and a rationale behind their collecting. For example, stamp collectors are usually focused on a specific country or on a theme. The same is true for coin collectors. Baseball card collectors concentrate on a team or league or person. Focus is necessary, and is the first rule for successful use of networks because it is so difficult to sift through thousands of anything to find the one(s) that meet your criteria. It is much better to have hurdles to entry that ensure the integrity of those who are admitted. A recruiter, for example, needs to know exactly what type of people they are looking for, and then spend the time to attract only those type, before admitting them to their community of similar people. If you are looking for dissimilar people, it is better to set up a separate network for each type.

There Needs to Be High Levels of Interaction and Useful Conversation

The second rule of getting value out of your network is to create a forum where there is interaction and conversation. You need to foster discussion and get people engaged in issues that shed light on their interests and skills. If no one comments on your posts, agrees or disagrees with your point of view, or adds their own thoughts that you comment on, most of the value is gone. When you think about the topics you discuss, you will probably see that much of it consists of small talk. We chatter about the weather events, books, music, and our kids — not that often about the big issues. And it is through these seemingly innocuous and even mundane chats that we learn what a person is really like. It is through the tweets and comments that we identify with people and come to understand their posture on issues.

It is very easy to think that people who always contribute to a discussion are the best, but I believe that the volume and frequency of communication are not necessarily indicators of quality. The networks where people engage in discussions about relevant issues and have arguments that are based on facts and evidence are powerful, but hard to find. It often requires someone to throw out the contentious statement or ask the tough question to get people interested enough to respond. It is by seeing how people respond that you can gain an appreciation for someone’s style and ability to get along with others or influence them.

Have a Number of Community Managers

The third rule is to always have someone ready to engage the network member in conversation, creating an widespread army of volunteers who are willing to monitor your network traffic and comment when appropriate. Nothing is worse that commenting on something or putting in a question and then getting nothing back for weeks. This person might be a full-time community manager. Even better, it could be many people dispersed throughout the organization. Crowdsourcing this role made sense and provides for more timely responses as well as for more variety.

Show Value

And finally you and others need to see that the network is delivering better candidates, better quality, and more hires than whatever you used before. I don’t think a social network can overcome the fact that other methods are cheaper or work better simply because it is new. We know enough about how to make them successful to ensure we get the metrics we need.

The number of people in your network is important, but not by itself. Size is important because it allows more network members to be equally engaged all the time, and the larger the network, the better the chances are that someone will be available and ready to engage in discussion and debate. Global reach and broader criteria for membership can help expand the numbers, but it is always a tradeoff between volume, quality, and focus.

If you watch networks for a while, you begin to see how many disappear after a few months. Only a handful remain for more than a year or two. It’s generally because they do not meet these simple, but tough to pull off, criteria.

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